State Policymakers Push Marriage Education
By Elizabeth Kinder, Staff Assistant
A divorced California state senator thinks lovesick couples should know what they're getting into before they tie the knot.
So State Sen. Bill Morrow, now remarried, wants to cut the cost of the marriage license if altar-bound couples take a marriage education course before saying "I do." He has introduced a bill that would require California counties to reduce their standard marriage license fee by $7 upon proof of completion of a premarital education course.
Morrow, a Republican, was "ill-equipped before his first marriage," says aide Damon Conklin. "He saw the flaw (in lack of premarital education) and wanted to fix it for his constituents."
California is not the only state where romantic entanglements are a legislative issue. At least 18 other states are also considering encouraging people to learn about marriage before they take the plunge. One of the reasons for the attention to what heretofore was outside the realm of government interest is President Bush's welfare reform plan, which places new emphasis on marriage.
States where the matter is under discussion include Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Some people object to government meddling in such a personal issue.
"I have a problem with the government getting involved in marriage and infringing on people's private lives," says Lisa Maatz of the National Organization for Women (NOW) Legal Defense and Education Fund. NOW says welfare reform should focus on poverty reduction, not marriage promotion.
Advocates of marriage education disagree. Diane Sollee, founder and director of the forprofit Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education , says government already imposes restrictions on marriage.
You can't marry whenever you want, you can't marry certain people and you can't marry too many people at once. And when marriage fails the government mandates divorce," she says.
Sollee says research shows pre-marital education can help couples learn the skills they need to know to get along together.
"It is the government's duty to inform citizens of the best practices of marriage; people should be outraged they're not getting this information," Sollee said.
Nearly 100 clergy members in Modesto, CA signed a statement in 1986, agreeing not to marry couples who hadn't completed a pre-marital course focusing on communication, conflict resolution, finance and intimacy.
The Modesto area saw a 47.6 percent decline in the divorce rate since clergy members initiated the pact, a 2001 study sponsored by a conservative group found.
Rev, Michael Douglass, one of the clergymen involved in the initiative, says marriage preparation provides a "strong foundation" for marriage, even though 10 to 30 percent of couples postpone marriage because they realize they are not ready.
"I can't say (the reduction) is all due to our policy but it had a profound effect on the community," Douglass says.
Oklahoma has pushed marriage education since 2000, and Bush administration officials regard its program as the best in the country. Gov. Frank Keating set aside $10 million in welfare funds in June 1999 to set up courses designed to strengthen marriages and reduce the divorce rate.
Keating conceived the plan after learning that Oklahoma's divorce rate then the second highest in the country -- was among social factors straining the state's economy.
Keating hopes to cut the divorce rate by one-third by the year 2010.
"When we launched this initiative, frankly some people asked my wife and me what business the government has getting involved in marriage," Keating said in a press release. "But when you look at the consequences of divorce, the better question is What business do we have NOT getting involved?"
President George W. Bush agrees.
"Strong marriages and stable families are incredibly good for children, and stable families should be the central goal of American welfare policy," Bush said in a recent U.S. News & World Report interview.